First Person

School health summit focuses on proven strategies

The scales measuring the obesity epidemic that is devastating the nation’s health – especially its future health – may ever so slightly be tipping back in the right direction, one of the nation’s leading public health advocates reports.

Dr. James S. Marks, vice president of the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation and a leading public health advocate, delivered the afternoon keynote address at the Healthy Schools Summit.

The signs are faint, but they’re there: Obesity levels among low-income pre-schoolers are down 0.3 percent. California has recorded a 0.4 percent decrease in childhood obesity rates, and New York City has logged a 1.2 percent decrease. Kearney, Neb., has seen its childhood obesity rates drop more than 2 percentage points, from 16.4 percent to 14.2 percent.

“There’s no one specific initiative that has led to these results,” Dr. James S. Marks, senior vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told participants in the Colorado Legacy Foundation’s Healthy Schools Summit on Wednesday. “But the culture has changed. It’s due to many small changes that are adding up.”

In addition to a change in culture, science is also figuring out what’s effective and what’s not in the battle of the bulge.

“The science about what to do has matured enough for us to take action,” Marks said. “Those communities that have started to make changes are seeing improvements in the health of their children.”

Summit attracts more than 800

Marks was the final keynote speaker in a day that brought together more than 800 educators, policy makers, students and healthcare providers to celebrate schools and programs that are having a positive impact on students’ health, and to brainstorm ideas for doing more of what works, and jettisoning things that don’t.

“We’re looking for ways to shift entrenched paradigms that have outlived their usefulness,” said Colorado Legacy Foundation president Helayne Jones.

She sympathized with the health teachers, school nurses, wellness committee coordinators, and other school administrators tasked with overseeing school health initiatives.

“It may be isolating to feel like you’re the only person in your school who cares about health and wellness,” she told them. “I hope that today you’ll feel connected to the national movement. I hope that, in the end, our movement will become the norm, the accepted practice.”

Common health problems impact learning

Dr. Charles Basch, professor of health education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, noted in his morning keynote that recent research has focused on just how some health factors that commonly affect large numbers of students really impacts their education. More importantly, schools can effectively address these problems.

For example, vision problems typically affect 20 percent of youngsters.

“If you can’t see, it’s much harder to acquire literacy skills,” he said.

So schools that conduct vision screening, and reach out to parents and teachers about the need to correct children’s vision, will see reading scores go up.

“On-site provision of glasses is a worthwhile investment,” he said.

Likewise, an estimated 14 percent of students suffer from asthma, though the ailment disproportionately impacts urban minority students.

“Asthma per se is not so much a problem,” Basch said. “What’s a problem is poorly controlled asthma.”

Thus, schools are wise to eliminate as many environmental triggers as possible, and to educate students about proper treatment and control of the disease.

An estimated one child in five comes to school having skipped breakfast, Basch said. So instituting a universal school breakfast program and allowing students to eat breakfast in the classroom are proven strategies for addressing that nutritional deficit.

“Unfortunately, some of the most widely distributed school health programs have absolutely no evidence that they’re effective,” he said. “It’s important that we use quality health programs, rather than selecting programs based on politics or ideology.”

“We don’t need more research to know what to do,” he added. “We just need to figure out how to put what we already know into practice in the nation’s schools.”

America the outlier in its approach to education

Journalist Matt Miller, author of The Two Percent Solution and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, came with his own list of steps American schools should take in order to provide students with the skills they’ll need to compete in a global economy. He spelled them out in his lunchtime keynote address.

“America has become an outlier nation in the way we fund, govern and administer schools, without the results to defend on practices,” Miller said.

He said serious school reform would begin with “a crusade to make teaching the career of choice for our most talented young people.” It would also include universal preschool, a longer school day and school year, national core standards and a more equitable funding strategy that would ensure the best teachers and principals go to the poorest schools and to the students who most desperately need them to survive.

In addition to setting forth challenges confronting schools, the summit also spotlighted some schools that have done outstanding work in improving school wellness. Thirty-two schools received $42,000 in awards, ranging from $5,000 to $500.

For instance, Manitou Springs Elementary is building an outside classroom called “the earthroom” to encourage students to study outside and learn about Colorado native plants. Skoglund Middle School in Center has seen a 20 percent drop in alcohol use and a 12 percent drop in tobacco use among its students. And Place Bridge Academy in Denver, a K-8 magnet school for refugees, has formed collaborative partnerships with more than 20 community organizations to better serve its students and is in the process of construction a full-size family clinic within the school.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.